In the Financial Times novelist Jennie Erdal poses the question of whether it’s still possible to write philosophical novels the way Dostoevsky and Tolstoy once did. While it is quite easy to disagree with her premise and point out any number of philosophical novels being written today, the article is indicative of a much deeper problem in English-language criticism and in English-language literature as a whole.
Literary history may be full of writers from many different languages – Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, for example – but when it comes to the modern age a provincial tunnel vision settles in and we are presented with Iris Murdoch, Samantha Harvey, David Mitchell, JM Coetzee, Julian Barnes, Nick Hornby and Erdal herself.
The only living novelist mentioned in the article who writes in a language other than English is Milan Kundera, and what Erdal writes about him shows up the blind spots in her argument even more starkly. Kundera is introduced because of his dislike of “the novelistic illustration of ideas” typified by a work like Sartre’s Nausea (1938). In the essay in which Kundera denigrates Sartre’s novel he wrote that “Nausea is existential philosophy in a novel’s clothing (as if a professor had decided to entertain his drowsy students by teaching the lesson in the form of a novel) …”
What Erdal very tellingly omits is the work Kundera notes as having embodied the encounter of existentialist philosophy with the novel – Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke (1937). In fact, Kundera’s short aside on Sartre in that essay was only done to point out the degree to which the famous Frenchman’s novel “usurped Gombrowicz’s rightful place in the history of the novel.”
Kundera explicitly states that novels such as Ferdydurke, Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers and Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities entered into “domains previously reserved for philosophy.” By that measure Erdal’s initial evocation of the philosophical age of the novel as being in the 19th century of the great Russians has it backwards.
Instead of noting Kundera’s actual conclusions, which likely would have prevented her writing the article in the first place, Erdal takes his dislike of Sartre’s novel out of context and tosses out a facile conclusion of her own: “With philosophy and the novel, it seems difficult to get the balance right.” Sorry Jean-Paul, better luck next time.
There are a number of ironies to using an essay highlighting major achievements of the philosophical novel to make the opposite point that novels are not as philosophical as they used to be. In the 1930s France was still a cultural powerhouse, so a mediocre or bad novel by a well-known figure such as Sartre unquestioningly overshadows a work of genius by an unknown Pole. Today of course, the spotlight that exaggerates profundity and artistic significance no longer shines so brightly on French writers. That role has been usurped by American writers and, more generally, English-language writers.
When Erdal does present a novel that she thinks “grants Kundera’s wish for a sovereign and radiant intelligence” it is All is Song by Samantha Harvey. Yet a look at Harvey’s novel or Erdal’s own novel The Missing Shade of Blue: A Philosophical Adventure makes it even clearer why Gombrowicz and his fellow Central European modernists have no place in this assessment. In comparison to these works of the 1930s Erdal’s successfully philosophical novels of the 21st century (in fact, of 2012) seem so old-fashioned as to be quaint relics of a bygone age. The 19th century of Tolstoy is used as a landmark less for its abundance of philosophy than for its familiar and agreeable realist literary style.
That is not to say that writers need to incorporate modernist innovations if they want to write philosophical novels. In his essay Kundera explicitly notes the adoption of pre-Balzac, pre-realist literary traditions. It is rather that extraliterary features (Sartre’s fame and the larger stage French letters provided him with) caused the literary path that Gombrowicz, Broch and Musil forged to go virtually unnoticed. And if Erdal’s article is any indication that path remains hidden in obscurity.
“That Nausea, not Ferdydurke, became the exemplar of that new orientation has had unfortunate consequences: the wedding night of philosophy and the novel was spent in mutual boredom,” Kundera wrote. And it appears that with its 75th wedding anniversary approaching that mutual boredom is as entrenched as ever.
Photo – Witold Gombrowicz surveying what passes as a philosophical novel and finding it wanting, photo by Bohdan Paczowski